St. Nicholas Abbey is a beautifully preserved 17th-century Jacobean mansion and sugarcane plantation, complemented by a kid-friendly heritage railway and, crucially for drinks enthusiasts, a self-sufficient rum distillery. It even produces its own hand-sanitizer, which smells like a mere squeezed lime away from a perfect daiquiri.
Barbados is rum heaven. It’s regarded as its birthplace, after all.
Rum is the country’s largest export and a key draw for tourists. Maximizing its economic potential is paramount for the local economy to thrive, particularly in the aftermath of the declaration of independence from the British Crown, in November of 2021.
And yet, unlike neighboring regions such as Martinique and Jamaica, Barbados rum is yet to have its own geographical indication (GI).
Admittedly, a GI has long been on the table. A first proposal was presented to the local registrar in 2016 but did not go through as a result of disagreements among the island’s four distilleries: Remy Cointreau-owned Mount Gay, Richard Seale’s Foursquare, St. Nicholas Abbey, and the island’s largest firm, Maison Ferrand-owned West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD).
There are many criteria for a GI that are subject to debate. Some—such as the use of sea water and mango wood barrels—might sound a little bizarre. Others hold rather profound implications.
A particularly heated point concerns the maturation of the spirit overseas. Mount Gay, Foursquare and St Nicholas—which jointly account for over 90% of the rum bottled in Barbados and of the island’s maturing rum stock—insists that GI-labeled rum should only be aged on the island, arguing that Barbados’ climatic conditions are key to the rum’s final flavor profile. WIRD advocates for a partial maturation in Europe instead.
The distilleries also disagree on the amount of rum that should be aged in bulk.
“Unless a domain is protected, Barbados rum shipped in bulk and sold in export markets can be legally diluted with [spirit] from cheaper sources yet still marketed as Barbados rum,” says Foursquare’s CEO, Richard Seale. “Often these rums have added sugar and oak flavoring to mask the diluted quality.”
Larry Warren, proprietor of St. Nicholas Abbey, points out that overseas maturation and bulk exports have as much to do with the typicity of the liquid as with the local economy. He argues that the GI should be about building a sustainable economic model, whereby Barbadians benefit from all—rather than just a fraction—of the revenues generated by the industry, which is only possible if all activities are undertaken on the island.
“The value of rum increases as it matures,” he says. “We lose foreign exchange earnings and jobs when bulk rum is shipped abroad for further maturation and bottling.”
In Their Own Hands
To promote Barbados rum in export markets, Foursquare, Mount Gay, and St. Nicholas Abbey created a producer group called Genuine Barbados Rum, Inc. Then, last summer, the group collectively submitted a new GI proposal to the local Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office (CAIPO).
This requires Barbados Rum to be distilled, matured, and bottled on the island, free of adulterating substances.
“The driving force behind securing the Barbados Rum GI is to forever link our terroir to our rums, much like we see with Single Malt Scotch in Scotland,” says Mount Gay managing director Antoine Couvreur.
The GI also accounts for a category dedicated to rums produced entirely with Barbados sugar cane from a single plot of land, as Foursquare and Mount Gay have recently joined St. Nicholas in milling some of their own sugarcane themselves.
“The CAIPO has a backlog overwhelmed with other areas of pressing importance and the GI is not top of their agenda,” admits Seale. “But we’ve been gently pushing… once published, anybody will be able to object, which we expect to happen… and fail,” he says, hinting at WIRD’s opposition to the proposal. Once official in Barbados, the group can then register the GI in key export markets such as the USA and the EU.
A Thriving Industry
Genuine Barbados Rum, Inc.’s distilleries are confident that the proposed GI will help raise Barbados rum’s perceived value.
“It’s not necessarily about the immediate benefit… but rather the long-term value that will protect the authenticity of Barbados rum,” says Couvreur. “Our rums are intrinsically linked to our terroir; from the water we use to the natural yeasts in the air… The GI is both a stamp of approval and an exercise in transparency that will truly honor Barbados as the birthplace of rum.”
The group believes that the GI will also attract more investors to the industry, and the strategy seems to be working. Two new distilleries are expected to be erected over the next few months: one located at Bentley Plantation, with the backing of Scotch distillery Kilchoman, and locally owned Hopewell Plantation.
The investors, the group stated, “have shared… their enthusiasm and support for the development of the Barbados Rum marque.”
The new GI proposal represents a real turning point for the Barbados rum industry. Over a year after the country parted ways with the British Crown to become a fully independent republic, it also represents a key development for the island’s wider economy and for its people’s self-determination.
“The Barbados Rum GI has been on the table for a decade, long before we were aware of Barbados working to gain Republic status, so it’s merely coincidence on that front,” says Couvreur. “However, what is clear is the strong will and independence of the Bajan people. The Barbados Rum GI will transfer added value of rum produced in Barbados to Barbados and to Barbadian companies by disrupting dated models of commodity production. The Barbados Rum GI ensures the added value is made within Barbados, effectively guaranteeing the benefit to the country and people.”
Last Updated: May 9, 2023